Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Country
United States of America (USA)
Inscribed in
1983
Criteria
(vii)
(viii)
(ix)
(x)
The conservation outlook for this site has been assessed as "good with some concerns" in the latest assessment cycle. Explore the Conservation Outlook Assessment for the site below. You have the option to access the summary, or the detailed assessment.

Stretching over more than 200,000 ha, this exceptionally beautiful park is home to more than 3,500 plant species, including almost as many trees (130 natural species) as in all of Europe. Many endangered animal species are also found there, including what is probably the greatest variety of salamanders in the world. Since the park is relatively untouched, it gives an idea of temperate flora before the influence of humankind. © UNESCO

Xiaojia He CC BY-SA 2.0

Summary

2020 Conservation Outlook

Finalised on
04 Dec 2020
Good with some concerns
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is inscribed on the World Heritage List for its scenery and biodiversity. The scenic vistas offered by the park are largely maintained, with incremental improvement in pollution legislation and practice in recent decades making marked improvements in air quality, which has reduced haze despite ongoing visitor management issues and the threats affecting forests which are such a feature of the scenery, most notably seen in the remnant dead pines protruding from forest canopies. The biological values are in variable condition across the wide range of ecosystems contained within the site. Mesic systems such as Cove forest, which covers the largest area of any ecological system in the site, are generally in good condition, whilst the more xeric systems such as low-altitude pine and dry oak forests are showing concerning departures from their natural state. Threats driving these concerns include a host of invasive species in the form of insects, pathogens, mammals, fish and plants, which have compounded existing impacts of air pollution and the resulting deposition of toxins, the legacy of an unnaturally altered fire regime, and the escalating effects of climate change. The park's attributes are being conserved by a world-class park management authority and its NGO partners with measures to tackle this broad array of threats to the extent possible at the site level. However, reduced federal budgets for the conservation of nature, which cannot be supplemented by park-entrance fees, and the complex and resource intensive nature of management requirements in the site limit the efficacy of management interventions despite the competance of staff. Overall, the Conservation Outlook for Great Smoky Mountains National Park is assessed as good with some concerns on the basis that the scenario has not deteriorated significantly since the previoius Outlook assessment in 2017. However, multiple persistent threats and corresponding incremental deterioration of some the site's values are such that without changes to critical policies to ensure the conservation outlook for this biological gem, this site may be of significant concern in the future.

Current state and trend of VALUES

Low Concern
Trend
Deteriorating
The Outstanding Universal Value of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is currently of low concern overall as the ecosystems covering the majority of the site, and species therein, remain in relatively good or moderate condition, and the scenic values therefore have been largely maintained. However, some systems, notably the more xeric low altitude pine and dry oak forests have deteriorated due to an array of threats that include air pollution and resultant deposition of toxins; over-crowding and noise pollution; the legacy of misguided fire suppression; climate change; and, most serious of all, a host of invasive species in the form of non-native pathogens, insects, mammals and fish. The park manager and NGO partners are tackling these multi-faceted threats with great dedication despite the complexity of management requirements and challenges in scale. 

Overall THREATS

High Threat
The scenery of the Great Smoky Mountains faces a moderate threat from air pollution, although haze levels have reduced in recent decades. High levels of visitation also continues to present threats to the site's scenic values. However, the main threat to the site's Outstanding Universal Value comes from a host of invasive species that are causing widespread damage to vegetation and associated species and systems across the park. Many of these ecosystems are already under stress as a result of air pollution and associated toxins and the legacy of many decades of misguided fire suppression in the 20th century. Climate change also carries the potential to may worsen the situation, although more research is required to fully understand the  likely effects of climate change in the site.

Overall PROTECTION and MANAGEMENT

Mostly Effective
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is managed by a world-class parks authority that is backed by a strong legal framework. Laws and regulations designed to protect the site include federal legislation for national parks as well as instruments that deal with on-the-ground practicalities such as traffic, firearms, parking, campfires, interactions with wildlife, walking trails and permits. Various formal planning instruments cover issues such as fire management and invasive species. A large part of the park is managed as wilderness. These measures create a solid foundation for effective management. This positive situation is enhanced by generous financial and volunteer support from the environmental NGO sector. The park has world-class programs for education, interpretation, monitoring and research. Despite these positives, the NPS is clearly struggling to deal with the sheer numbers of visitors as the park experiences by far the highest visitation of any of the 59 National Parks. Nor does it have the resources to deal with the threat to the site's OUV from a host of invasive species, whose management intervention requirements are complex and resource intensive. Reliable long-term funding from government has been a challenge, however the passing of the Great American Outdoors Act, with associated funding may address this issue.

Full assessment

Click the + and - signs to expand or collapse full accounts of information under each topic. You can also view the entire list of information by clicking Expand all on the top left.

Finalised on
04 Dec 2020

Description of values

Exceptional natural beauty

Criterion
(vii)
The site is of exceptional natural beauty with scenic vistas of characteristic mist-shrouded (“smoky”) mountains, vast stretches of virgin timber, and clear running streams (World Heritage Committee, 2018). It is one of the most pristine natural areas in the eastern U.S., offering park visitors breathtaking mountain scenery, including panoramic views of misty peaks, clear flowing mountain streams, and mature hardwood forests stretching to the horizon. The Park encompasses 800 square miles of pristine natural areas with peaks that range from elevations of 875 feet to 6,643 feet, including 16 peaks over 6000 feet in elevation.

Outstanding example of the diverse Arcto-Tertiary geoflora era

Criterion
(viii)
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is of world importance as the outstanding example of the diverse Arcto-Tertiary geoflora era, providing an indication of what the late Pleistocene flora looked like before recent human impacts (World Heritage Committee, 2018). The Great Smoky Mountains are believed to be 200-300 million years old making them among the oldest mountains in the world. During the last (Pleistocene) ice age, about 10,000 years ago, the glaciers that scoured much of North America allowed for the migration of species into the Smoky Mountains and because of the unique northeast to southwest orientation of the mountains the glaciers did not invade the Smoky Mountains. This created not only unique mountain features, but also a vast diversity of flora and fauna (IUCN, 1982).

Significant example of continuing biological evolution

Criterion
(ix)
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the largest remaining remnants of the diverse Arcto-Tertiary geoflora era in the world, providing a good indication of the appearance of late Pleistocene flora. 30% of the forested landscape of the park is ancient old growth forest. The Park is large enough to be a significant example of continuing biological evolution of this natural system and is of the one of the most ecologically rich and diverse temperate zone protected areas in the world (World Heritage Committee, 2018).

Diversity of Flora

Criterion
(x)
An average of 85” of rainfall annually, the variations in elevation, temperature, and geology provide ideal habitat for over 1300 native vascular plant species, including 105 native tree species, plus nearly 500 species of non-vascular plants; a level of floristic diversity that rivals or exceeds other temperate zone protected areas of similar size. In addition, the park has a vast number of non-flowering plants, including 450 bryophytes-mosses, liverworts, and a few hornworts. Non-flowering species also include some 50 ferns and fern allies and at least one horsetail. There are three federally listed threatened and endangered plant species, and in addition over 300 species of native vascular plants are considered rare (GSMP, 2012).
 

Diversity of mammals and birds

Criterion
(x)
Research indicates that there are 65 species of mammals and over 200 varieties of birds in the Park. Within the boundaries of the Park there are a number of threatened or endangered species. There are 15 animal species listed as Federal Species of Concern found in the Park (GSMP, 2012). 

Diversity of reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates and aquatic fauna

Criterion
(x)
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most biologically diverse parks in a temperate climate. The Park is also home to the world’s greatest diversity of salamander species (31) - an important indicator of overall ecosystem health - and is the center of diversity for lungless salamanders, with 24 species (World Heritage Committee, 2018). Within the boundaries of the Park there are a number of threatened or endangered species including 3 fish species.

Assessment information

High Threat
The scenery of the Great Smoky Mountains has suffered from high ambient levels of air pollution and corresponding haze, although this has improved over recent decades. At higher levels this is exacerbated by the sight of dead Fraser fir trees, killed by a non-native insect. The park's ambience is also adversely affected by high levels of visitation and associated traffic noise. However, the major threat to the site's Outstanding Universal Value comes from a diverse array of invasive species that include non-native mammals, fish, insects, fungi and other pathogens. These species have damaged a significant number of ecosystems in the park to varying degree, including aquatic habitats, riparian vegetation, the high-altitude zone and the mid-slopes. In particular, Fir trees, hemlock, native trout, and bats have been significantly affected, but represent just some of the species that are deteriorating as a result of invasive species. The cumulative impact of these invasive species combined with the stress produced by air pollution and a changed fire regime constitute a high threat to the attributes which qualified the park for listing under criteria (ix) and (x).
Tourism/ visitors/ recreation
(Heavy visitation of the park impacts facilities, infrastructure, natural assets close to roads, and ambience)
High Threat
Inside site
, Localised(<5%)
Visitation to the national park is consistently above 10 million people per annum, with a new record of over 12.5 million set in 2019 (NPS, 2020b). This contributes to localized on-the-ground impacts, primarily in high-use areas (NPS, 2016) and the park has noted in the past that "congestion inside and outside of the park detracts from scenic beauty" (NPS, 2016). The park reports an increase in vandalism and graffiti on tunnels, walls, and boulders (NPS, 2016). As of 2016, budgets and staffing had not increased to match increases in visitation and maintenance costs (NPS, 2016) and in 2018, the park had over $235 million in deferred maintenance of infrastructure (NPS, 2018). However, in June 2020, the U.S. Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act, which "establishes the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund to support deferred maintenance projects on federal lands" (U.S. Congress, 2020). This fund will provide "$9.5 billion over five years to address priority repairs in national parks and other public lands" (SELC, 2020), and $6.65 billion of this fund will be directed to national parks to address critical repairs (Pew, 2020). This legislation also makes permanent the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Closure of the park due to COVID-19 on 24 March 2020 (NPS, 2020q) will significantly reduce both numbers and impacts in the current year. It is not known what the long-term effect of this measure will be, however park staff are monitoring air quality during closure from the COVID-19 pandemic, to see if a reduction in emissions inside the park has any effects on air quality in the park (WBIR, 2020).
Air Pollution
(Air pollution)
High Threat
Inside site
, Throughout(>50%)
Outside site
Air pollutants from sources outside the park, though reduced from levels in decades past due to emission controls, are having a wide range of documented impacts, tarnishing scenic views, increasing the pH in high-elevation streams, depositing mercury, and damaging plants (NPS, 2016). Although 5 park water resources are designated as “Outstanding Natural Resource Waters”, 12 of the park's streams are listed by the EPA as impaired due to acidification, and some 18% of park streams are currently too acidic to support fish and other aquatic life; this source says that some models indicate that it will take over 100 years for some streams to recover sufficiently to support fish again. Airborne pollution from nearby agriculture in the region contributes to the park’s nitrogen deposition (NPS, 2016). However, as of 2017, several air pollution metrics show an improving trend over the previous 10 years: visibility/haze index is fair and improving; ozone/vegetation health is fair and improving; sulfur deposition/wet deposition is poor but improving (NPS, 2017a). Nitrogen deposition/wet deposition is poor with an unchanging trend, but the park’s ecosystems have very low sensitivity to nitrogen-enrichment effects (NPS, 2017a). According to the park, “mercury deposition is increasingly posing a significant threat to the food web of aquatic and terrestrial resources of the park” (NPS, 2016).
Invasive Non-Native/ Alien Species, Introduced Modified Genetic Material, Diseases/pathogens
(Invasive animals, plants, pathogens, insects and other biological intrusions)
Very High Threat
Inside site
, Throughout(>50%)
According to park literature, the national park is facing one of its greatest eclogical crises since the chestnut blight in the form of the hemlock woolly adelgid (NPS and GSMA, 2010). Forest health is declining, affecting key species (NPS, 2016). Without successful intervention, the invasive hemlock woolly adelgid is likely to kill most of the hemlocks, which play an important role by providing deep shade along creeks, maintaining cool micro-climates critical to survival of trout and other cold-water species. The impact of widespread loss of hemlock could trigger changes more significant than those that followed the demise of the American Chestnut in the 1930s and 40s (NPS, 2020c). The introduced balsam woolly adelgid (Adelges piceae) is an insect pest that infests and kills stands of Fraser fir (Abies fraseri), formerly the dominant tree at the highest elevations; affected trees literally starve to death, and thousands of dead trees are all that are left on the highest mountain peaks (NPS, 2020c). Further serious impacts to the vegetation and ecosystems of the park are occurring from the Emerald Ash Borer and the Dogwood Anthracnose (NPS, 2020; NPS data.gov, 2020; Kays, 2017). There are over 380 non-native plant species in the park; 35 of those are aggressive and pose a threat to the park’s ecosystems. Many of these species are found in sites that have undergone recent disturbance, and, once established, they are aggressive competitors with native plants and can change natural succession. Other problems caused by non-native plants include interbreeding with closely related native species and out-competing rare native plants that require specialized  habitats. At least 8 of these species are prolific in the park (Japanese grass, privet, multiflora rose, Japanese honeysuckle, mimosa garlic mustard, oriental bittersweet, musk thistle), and present a significant threat to the ecosystem (NPS, 2004, 2016, 2020c). Exotic wild hogs in the park damage wetlands and other habitats, compete with native animals for food, and introduce diseases. According to the NPS, 'the hogs will eat just about anything, including red-cheeked salamanders (Plethodon jordani), which are found only in the park, and the roots and foliage of wildflowers that often take years to mature and bloom'; a combination of trapping, shooting and establishment of exclosures is used by the NPS to manage this problem (NPS, 2020c). Introduced rainbow and brown trout are competing with native Brook Trout (Moore et al., 2005). According to sources, the native brook trout have lost 75% of their range within the park since the 1900s (NPS, 2020a).  Collectively, virtually all of the park's ecosystems are under threat from the particular and cumulative impacts of this huge range of exotic plants, animals, insects and pathogens.
Invasive Non-Native/ Alien Species
(White-Nose Syndrome)
Low Threat
Inside site
, Localised(<5%)
The little brown bat faces a serious threat of extinction from the white-nose syndrome (NPS, 2020d). While assessed  as 'low threat' to the Outstanding Universal Value of the World Heritage site, it is an existential threat to this species and contributes to cumulative impacts on the site.
Other Activities
(Noise pollution and light pollution)
Low Threat
Inside site
, Scattered(5-15%)
According to the park sources, “noise and light pollution are affecting the wilderness experience in some areas” (NPS, 2016). In particular, “the sound of motorcycle traffic on the park roads can be heard a considerable distance into the wilderness”, and “low-level overflights by air-tour helicopters have been a persistent issue for a number of years” (NPS, 2016). The park is currently working with the Federal Aviation Administration to implement the National Parks Air Tour Management Act of 2000 (amended in 2012) (FAA, 2020). In 2019, a schedule was announced for the park to develop Voluntary Agreements with air tour operators (as allowed under the 2012 amendment), to be finalized in 2022 (NPS 2019). The impacts of light pollution from increasing residential and commercial development (outside the park) on the clarity of the park's night skies have been noted (NPS, 2016).
Fire/ Fire Suppression
(Altered fire regime)
Low Threat
Inside site
, Widespread(15-50%)
The park's historic and prehistoric fire regime was altered by decades of deliberate fire suppression and fire prevention in the 20th century. In the last 25 years, there has been a substantial change of policy, resulting in significant parts of the park treated with prescribed burns (NPS, 2020g). The NPS has made considerable positive progress on this front.
High Threat
Didymosphenia geminata poses a potential threat to the site's streams and aquatic habitat. Climate change and the associated potential for intensified storms have the potential to seriously exacerbate the impacts already being suffered by the site.
Invasive Non-Native/ Alien Species
(Didymo)
Low Threat
Outside site
Didymosphenia geminata, commonly known as Didymo or “rock snot” is an algae that grows in many North American freshwater streams. Although it is not found in the park at present, there is an active monitoring protocol in place to detect it (NPS, 2020f). Once established in streams it forms extensive mats on stream beds, and chokes out other aquatic life. Didymo is not presently known to be in the Smokies, but is found in all tailwater streams in eastern Tennessee. The algae easily attaches to the felt soles of fisherman’s wading shoes and is readily introduced into other streams.
Other Ecosystem Modifications
(Climate change)
High Threat
Inside site
, Throughout(>50%)
Outside site
Climate change, combined with existing threats such as air pollution and invasive organisms, has the potential to severely jeopardise significant parts of the site's OUV. A range of possible impacts from climate change have been predicted (NPS 2020e). There has been a 50-year warming trend, a later advent of winter frosts, and earlier spring warming (NPS, 2016). Other studies have suggested that future climate change might compromise the capacity for these forests to sustain habitat suitability (McDonnell et al., 2018). Tuttle (2019) says that the interactions between 'multiple stressors', including climate change and fire suppression are factors in impacts on vegetation.
The scenery of the Great Smoky Mountains faces a moderate threat from air pollution, although haze levels have reduced in recent decades. High levels of visitation also continues to present threats to the site's scenic values. However, the main threat to the site's Outstanding Universal Value comes from a host of invasive species that are causing widespread damage to vegetation and associated species and systems across the park. Many of these ecosystems are already under stress as a result of air pollution and associated toxins and the legacy of many decades of misguided fire suppression in the 20th century. Climate change also carries the potential to may worsen the situation, although more research is required to fully understand the  likely effects of climate change in the site.
Management system
Highly Effective
The National Park Service is a world-class manager of World Heritage sites. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has a comprehensive General Plan and a range of policies and programs that deal with fire, non-native species, back-country recreation and tourism (NPS website 2020, numerous pages).
Effectiveness of management system
Highly Effective
Management of the national park is highly effective. A comprehensive suite of management instruments designed to deal with varying aspects of park management (NPS, 2020h) are detailed under the management plan and implemented by the NPS and its NGO partners. It is a class I area under the Clean Air Act; significant parts of the park are managed as wilderness; its waterways enjoy special designations under state laws (NPS, 2016). The park has large and active programs in ecology, air quality and fire ecology. The park has re-introduction programs for previously extirpated animals such as elk (NPS, 2020i) and southern Appalachian brook trout (NPS, 2020p) in order to restore habitats. 
Boundaries
Mostly Effective
The boundaries of the World Heritage site are well established and enclose a large tract of wild country.
Integration into regional and national planning systems
Highly Effective
Park management has extensive partnerships and close working relationships with County, State and Federal agencies beyond the National Parks Service, especially focused on collaborative regional management through the Southern Appalachian Man & the Biosphere Committee (SAMAB)(NPS, 2008). Park-management documents describe the park's various designations under federal and state laws pertaining to clean air, national parks and clean waterways (NPS, 2016).
Relationships with local people
Mostly Effective
Government park management is supported by NGOs that include Friends of the Smokies, the National Park Foundation and the Great Smoky Mountain Association. According to the NPS, 2625 volunteers donated 150,308 hours of service to the park in fiscal year 2013 (NPS, 2020j). No evidence could be found of formal park agreements with the native American tribes of the area (the Cherokee). However, nor is there any publicly available evidence of issues with the relationship between the park and the Cherokee that need to be resolved.
Legal framework
Mostly Effective
The legal framework applying to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park consists of federal laws and the park regulations set out in the Superintendent's Compendium that cover issues such as campfires, road closures, interactions with bears, traffic, permits etc. (NPS, 2020k). The site is governed by federal regulations that apply to all national-park lands. Other relevant federal acts cover establishment of the National Park Service, air quality, water quality, environmental policy, wild and scenic rivers, endangered and threatened species, historic preservation, and archaeological resources protection. These statutes are very effective in maintaining the Outstanding Universal Value of the site. A concern stems from a 2020 federal law enabling people to carry firearms into the park, thereby endangering park rangers and complicating enforcement (NPS, 2020k).
Law enforcement
Some Concern
NGOs frequently express alarm and frustration about proposed and/or actual budget cuts on all parks by the national administration (NPCA, 2019a) and the resulting impacts on law enforcement. Poaching of ginseng is a problem that receives considerable attention by rangers (NPS, 2020). Cuts to the park's operating budget in recent years have reduced the number of field law enforcement rangers on the park staff, with the result that most patrols are limited to the paved roads of the park, and thus backcountry and boundary encroachment concerns go unmet.
Implementation of Committee decisions and recommendations
Data Deficient
The State Party was commended for its responsiveness with respect to air quality issues (World Heritage Committee, 2002) as well as for its work to address the threat from North Shore Road construction into a wild, undeveloped area of the park (World Heritage Committee, 2006). However, other than adoption of a retrospective Statement of OUV, there have been no further relevant decisions by the Committee recently. 
Sustainable use
Some Concern
Tourism is the largest sustainable use in the park. The high and increasing numbers of tourists (NPS, 2020b) combined with constraints on park fees has been a challenge to park managers to date. However, the recent establishment of the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund under the Great American Outdoors Act will support deferred maintenance projects on federal lands (U.S. Congress, 2020) and may address this issue to some extent. This issue is discussed in more detail under 'tourism and visitation' and 'sustainable finance'.
Sustainable finance
Some Concern
Due to a tradition that goes back to the Park’s establishment in the 1930s, the NPS does not charge park entry-fees (NPS, 2020l). This policy costs the National Park Service more than $100 million per annum – funds that could be spent (at least partly) on tackling issues. The park does receive funding from fees for backcountry usage and camping. The NPS says that flat budgets from government have increased reliance on external financial support (NPS, 2016). NGOs frequently express alarm and frustration about proposed and/or actual budget cuts on all parks applied by the national administration (NPCA, 2019a). In 2018, the park had over $235 million in deferred maintenance of infrastructure (NPS, 2018). However, in June 2020, the U.S. Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act, which "establishes the National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund to support deferred maintenance projects on federal lands" (U.S. Congress, 2020). This fund will provide "$9.5 billion over five years to address priority repairs in national parks and other public lands" (SELC, 2020), and $6.65 billion of this fund will be directed to national parks to address critical repairs (Pew, 2020). This legislation also makes permanent the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Therefore although overall sustainable finance has been of some concern to date, the recent passing of this bill may address this issue in the future. 
Staff capacity, training, and development
Some Concern
Increasing budgetary constraints outlined under 'sustainable finance' are placing increasing pressure on the NPS to maintain and train staff.
Education and interpretation programs
Highly Effective
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has excellent education and interpretation programs. It has an extremely informative website, well-signposted nature trails, excellent handout materials, a junior-ranger program, and other engaging on-site education programs (NPS, 2020m). They cover issues such as fire management, hemlock trees, exotic plants, air quality and wildlife interactions. There are free programs for children of school age that form part of the local curriculum. Newsletters cover seasonal changes and current conditions. These publications are augmented by similar programs run by NGOs such as the Great Smoky Mountains Association (GSMA, 2020) and the Tremont Great Smoky Mountains Institute. 
Tourism and visitation management
Serious Concern
The park has 4 visitor centers, 11 campgrounds, over 600 km of roads and over 1300 km of trails; many of the facilities are aging, management having had to defer maintenance (NPS, 2016). The park's extraordinary rates of visitation, with over 12.5 million visits to the park in 2019 presents a huge challenge in terms of management (NPS, 2020b). Visitation is generally increasing, resulting in additional pressures on facilities, roads and other resources, associated increases in noise pollution, and a disturbing increase in graffiti and vandalism (NPS, 2016). Crowding and congestion are problems in popular areas of the park, adversely affecting the visitor experience; opportunities for solitude and immersion in nature are becoming more difficult to find; crowding has resulted in increased wear and tear on park facilities; campgrounds become denuded and disturbed areas alongside roads are spreading (NPS, 2016). Park infrastructure is ageing, much of it reaching the end of its life, but budgetary constraints have not enabled its renovation or replacement; as a result, natural and cultural resources are at risk (including from increased risk of sewage spills) (NPS, 2016). The NPS and its NGO partners cope as best they can but the situation is clearly crying out for a long-term solution by way of capped visitor numbers and increased financial resources. The closure of the park in March 2020 due to COVID-19 is a temporary respite for park resources but provides neither a desirable nor long-term solution.
Monitoring
Highly Effective
The USA national-park system has a comprehensive long-term monitoring program (NPS, 2020n). The park has numerous monitoring program; details of many of them, including on air quality, water quality, salamander surveys, bird surveys and the 'all taxa inventory' are available online (NPS, 2020o). In particular, the park has adopted a 'Vital Signs' monitoring protocol, focused on six key factors to indicate park health - acid deposition, vegetative communities, soil quality, water chemistry, freshwater communities, and climate change (NPS, 2014a; 2014b).
Research
Highly Effective
There is a vibrant research program in the park with numerous research permits issued annually. The park shares data publicly and encourages other researchers to provide additional data (NPS, 2020o). Programs include the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory, endangered species research and management, invasive species research and management, and re-introduction of species. In addition, the park also operates the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center  (NPCA, 2004, NPS, 2008, NPS, 2020). Over the past decade, the park's all-taxa biological inventory has identified a total of 19,363 species in the park, including 9187 species not previously known in the park, and 983 species new to science. NGOs such as the Great Smoky Mountains Association and Great Smoky Mountains Institute support and augment these research programs (GSMA, 2020).
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is managed by a world-class parks authority that is backed by a strong legal framework. Laws and regulations designed to protect the site include federal legislation for national parks as well as instruments that deal with on-the-ground practicalities such as traffic, firearms, parking, campfires, interactions with wildlife, walking trails and permits. Various formal planning instruments cover issues such as fire management and invasive species. A large part of the park is managed as wilderness. These measures create a solid foundation for effective management. This positive situation is enhanced by generous financial and volunteer support from the environmental NGO sector. The park has world-class programs for education, interpretation, monitoring and research. Despite these positives, the NPS is clearly struggling to deal with the sheer numbers of visitors as the park experiences by far the highest visitation of any of the 59 National Parks. Nor does it have the resources to deal with the threat to the site's OUV from a host of invasive species, whose management intervention requirements are complex and resource intensive. Reliable long-term funding from government has been a challenge, however the passing of the Great American Outdoors Act, with associated funding may address this issue.
Assessment of the effectiveness of protection and management in addressing threats outside the site
Some Concern
Threats arising from outside the site include air pollution, encroaching commercial development and climate change. The NPS has limited capacity to address these issues.
Best practice examples
There are numerous examples of best management practices in the park. Examples are the Elk re-introduction program, restoration of native Brook Trout, prescribed fire management, the wild-hog reduction program, bear management, education and interpretive programs, and resource and visitor protection programs.
World Heritage values

Exceptional natural beauty

Low Concern
Trend
Data Deficient
The vistas of characteristic mist-shrouded (“smoky”) mountains which give the site it's scenic values remain of low concern albeit having been adversely impacted to some extent. The heavy mortality of hemlock trees, with remnant dead Fraser fir trees also still visible, caused by non-native insect pests has reduced the ecological integrity of the forest types associated with these species. Meanwhile, the general ambience within the park has suffered as a result of high levels of visitation and the resulting congestion and noise pollution. However the newly established National Parks and Public Land Legacy Restoration Fund (U.S. Congress, 2020) provides an opportunity to improve visitor management through funds for deferred maintenance projects in the site. Haze from air pollution still sometimes shrouds the views in the park, however the visibility and haze index have been improving over the course of the past few decades (NPCA, 2019b; NPS, 2017a).

Outstanding example of the diverse Arcto-Tertiary geoflora era

High Concern
Trend
Deteriorating
The flora in the site if of high concern, largely due to insidious and sustained damage from a host of alien and invasive species which include insects, pathogens, weeds and mammals. Most notable is the impacts on key tree species by woolly adelgids; great stands of Fraser fir on the upper slopes of the peaks have been killed by balsam woolly adelgid; and a significant proportion of the hemlocks, one of the park's most common trees, have suffered from die back caused by hemlock woolly adelgid. This issue is particularly challenging due to current management efforts which focus on chemical treatments administered to individual or small groups of trees (NPS, 2020), making the necessary scaling up of treatment to address this widespread issue difficult. Longer term options, such as resistance breeding through hybridization and biocontrol treatments, are being developed, and preliminary monitoring results have been reported as encouraging, albeit in 2015 (NPS, 2015). However such integrated treatments are also complex and their efficacy can very according to external factors such as weather (Sumpter et al., 2018). Non-native wild hogs are destroying other types of vegetation and degrading wetlands, however sustained management interventions may reduce the threat of this particular species (IUCN Consultation, 2020; Levy, 2016; 2017). Significant efforts have been undertaken by park managers, NGOs and volunteers to tackle these invasive species- the park service has at least twenty staff members whose primary role centres around controlling invasive species (Smoky Mountain News, 2019). Additionally, the National Park Service has commenced a system-wide effort to address invasive animal species (Smoky Mountain News, 2019). However, there is a need for significantly more resources, without which the situation will likely deteriorate further.

Significant example of continuing biological evolution

Low Concern
Trend
Deteriorating
Large parts of the site are managed as wilderness and thus remain relatively intact in many parts. The cove forest which occupies 24% of the site and represents the largest ecological system is in good condition along with mesic oak forest and northern hardwood forests according to the most recent data (Klein et al., 2017). However, the ongoing biological evolution and ecological processes are being disrupted by alien and invasive species that include non-native pathogens, insects, plants, mammals and fish, and therefore there is a degree of concern, particularly in the low altitude forest systems and dry oak forest, which currently show a high degree of departure from their 'natural' state (Klein et al., 2017). 

Diversity of Flora

High Concern
Trend
Deteriorating
The flora of the site is of high concern due to the high level threats facing a number of species, and the challenging nature of addressing these threats at the scale required, as many of these threats originate outside of the site or are currently only able to be addressed at a small scale with the current management capacity (Smoky Mountain News, 2019; IUCN Consultation, 2020). Some plant species suffer from poaching (ginseng, trillium, and other flowering and medicinal plants) (NPS, 2018b; Taylor, 2016; WBIR, 2017); others from non-native and invasive species (hemlocks, dogwood, beech, ash and Fraser fir) (NPS, 2015). Wild hogs are degrading wetlands and eating rare plants. Although control efforts are underway for many of these threats (Levy, 2016; 2017; NPS, 2015; Smoky Mountains News, 2019), the diversity of flora can be assessed as deteriorating overall, with several of the tree species affected critical to the ecological health of large parts of the national park. Climate change is likely to exacerbate this situation, although greater understanding of the projected impacts is required in order to fully assess the this threat.

Diversity of mammals and birds

Low Concern
Trend
Data Deficient
The site remains an important area for a diversity of mammals and birds, with 274 species recorded in the digital observatory on protected areas (DOPA), of which only two are endangered (little brown bat and eastern small-footed bat), with a further seven vulnerable (eastern spotted skunk; gray bat; cerulean warbler; horned grebe; evening grosbeak; rusty blackbird and chimney swift) (DOPA, 2020). However, the low proportion of threatened species in the site does not serve to suggest that mammal and bird species are not subject to threats within the site. For example, the little brown bat in particular faces a serious threat of extinction from white-nose syndrome (NPS, 2020d). While assessed  as 'low threat' to the overall OUV of the park, it is an existential threat to this species and contributes to cumulative impacts on the World Heritage site. More generally, continuation of the existing research and monitoring on the current and projected impacts of from air pollution, the legacy of unnaturally altered fire regime, ongoing tree mortality, and the rapidly evolving impacts of climate change on the diversity of birds and mammals in the site is needed to determine more accurately the level of threat faced. 

Diversity of reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates and aquatic fauna

Low Concern
Trend
Stable
The site contains over 2,100 miles of streams, which provide important habitat to 67 species of fish in 12 different families (NPS, 2020a) as well as a number of other aquatic fauna. Aquatic habitats within the World Heritage site have been adversely impacted by a number of factors, including the displacement of native southern Appalachian brook trout by brown and rainbow trout. However, Great Smoky Mountains fisheries staff have made substantial efforts to re-establish native brook trout within appropriate rivers in the site and have restored brook trout back to 14.6 miles of their native range since 1986 (NPS, 2020a;p) along with rainbow trout removal programs in parallel (Smoky Mountain News, 2019). In this regard the aquatic habitats can be considered to be improving, however threats remain through the potential loss of the important shade provided by hemlocks, and acid rain and toxic deposits resulting from air pollution (IUCN Consultation, 2020) such that the trend is deemed stable in this assessment. 
Assessment of the current state and trend of World Heritage values
Low Concern
Trend
Deteriorating
The Outstanding Universal Value of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is currently of low concern overall as the ecosystems covering the majority of the site, and species therein, remain in relatively good or moderate condition, and the scenic values therefore have been largely maintained. However, some systems, notably the more xeric low altitude pine and dry oak forests have deteriorated due to an array of threats that include air pollution and resultant deposition of toxins; over-crowding and noise pollution; the legacy of misguided fire suppression; climate change; and, most serious of all, a host of invasive species in the form of non-native pathogens, insects, mammals and fish. The park manager and NGO partners are tackling these multi-faceted threats with great dedication despite the complexity of management requirements and challenges in scale. 

Additional information

Outdoor recreation and tourism,
Natural beauty and scenery
With over 1300 km of trails of varying standards available to park visitors, the site is a destination for outdoor recreation activities for visitors from across the USA and around the world.
Factors negatively affecting provision of this benefit
Climate change
Impact level - Moderate
Trend - Increasing
Pollution
Impact level - High
Trend - Continuing
Overexploitation
Impact level - Moderate
Trend - Continuing
Invasive species
Impact level - High
Trend - Increasing
The quality of visitor experience is influenced by numerous factors including the extent of air and water pollution, visibility, traffic congestion, and crowding of popular sites. While developed areas of the park are overcrowded in the peak visitor season, backcountry trails are seldom overused, and remain a major attraction for visitors.
Importance for research,
Contribution to education
Education is a key component of the park values, from in-park education/interpretive programs, to higher education and research programs for colleges and universities. The Great Smoky Mountain Institute at Tremont and the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Centre provide education programs to promote the ecology, culture and stewardship of the site.
Factors negatively affecting provision of this benefit
Climate change
Impact level - Moderate
Trend - Increasing
Overexploitation
Impact level - Moderate
Trend - Continuing
Invasive species
Impact level - Very High
Trend - Increasing
The factors are themselves objects of study but have negative impacts on the intrinsic attributes of the park and the value of those attributes for education.
Direct employment,
Tourism-related income,
Provision of jobs
With up to 12.5 million visitors annually the Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited National Park in the NPS, directly and indirectly generating significant employment and hundreds of millions of dollars  for the local and regional economies. The NPS alone provides over 240 permanent staff and 80 seasonals (NPS, 2020j).
Factors negatively affecting provision of this benefit
Climate change
Impact level - Moderate
Trend - Increasing
Pollution
Impact level - Moderate
Trend - Continuing
Overexploitation
Impact level - High
Trend - Increasing
Invasive species
Impact level - Low
Trend - Continuing
The over-crowding, noise, pollution and congestion associated with the high visitor numbers negatively affect the visitors' experience, potentially impacting on economic attributes in future years.
Importance for research
The park serves as a benchmark for contrasting the character of undisturbed environments with disturbed areas outside the park. There are numerous papers and websites dedicated to long-term monitoring of park characteristics, such as air and water quality, exotic pests and climate change.
Factors negatively affecting provision of this benefit
Climate change
Impact level - Moderate
Trend - Increasing
Pollution
Impact level - Moderate
Trend - Continuing
Overexploitation
Impact level - High
Trend - Increasing
Invasive species
Impact level - Very High
Trend - Increasing
The factors are themselves objects of study but have negative impacts on the intrinsic attributes of the park and the value of those attributes for research and education.
History and tradition,
Wilderness and iconic features,
Sacred natural sites or landscapes,
Sacred or symbolic plants or animals,
Cultural identity and sense of belonging
The park was originally the land of the Cherokee, who lived there for over a thousand years. Their descendants maintain a spiritual link with these lands. Following its creation in the 1930s, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has inspired a wealth of poetry, literature and art from people who enjoy adventure, seclusion and challenge within its boundaries.
Factors negatively affecting provision of this benefit
Climate change
Impact level - Moderate
Trend - Increasing
Pollution
Impact level - High
Trend - Continuing
Overexploitation
Impact level - Very High
Trend - Increasing
Invasive species
Impact level - Very High
Trend - Increasing
The park's spiritual values to all people are diminished by the noise, over-crowding, congestion and light pollution of the night skies that come with the park's millions of visitors each year. The gradual erosion of the park's ecological integrity by exotic organisms and the sight of large tracts of dead trees have a similar impact.
Carbon sequestration,
Flood prevention,
Water provision (importance for water quantity and quality)
The large tracts of forest sequester large quantities of carbon, a positive factor in addressing climate change. The park's catchments provide reliable and clean waters to adjoining reservoirs. With climate change likely to cause intensified storms in the region, the parks's forested slopes and stable soils help mitigate floods.
Factors negatively affecting provision of this benefit
Climate change
Impact level - Moderate
Trend - Increasing
Pollution
Impact level - Moderate
Overexploitation
Trend - Continuing
Invasive species
Impact level - Very High
Trend - Increasing
Acid rain and deposition of toxins from air pollution and the gradually escalating impacts of climate change negatively affect these benefits.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park provides a recreational and spiritual resource to many thousands of park users. It provides a multitude of opportunities for outdoor recreation and associated benefits for physical and mental health for users of the park. Ecosystem services come in the form of carbon sequestration, provision of reliable water and flood mitigation. The huge tourist industry that relies on the park provides thousands of jobs and tens of millions of dollars worth of incomes to the local and regional economies. Opportunities for research and enhanced education abound within the national park and these opportunities have been exploited by at least two well-established educational institutions within the park's precinct.
Organization Brief description of Active Projects Website
1 Great Smoky Mountains Instritute at Tremont Numerous programs including photography, science, adventure treks, field naturalism and ecological expeditions.
https://gsmit.org/program/calendar/
2 NPS / Appalachian Highlands Learning Centre Numerous programs, including high-school internships, citizen science, specific research projects and school programs.
https://www.nps.gov/grsm/learn/nature/pk-homepage.htm

References

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